By Christopher Petrella and Alex Friedmann

After nearly 40 years of unprecedented growth, our nation’s expanding prison population has finally begun to sputter. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010 marked the first year since 1972 in which, taken together, state and federal correctional populations declined slightly – a trend that continued in 2011.

This modest reduction reflects revisions to draconian drug laws (particularly in New York and Florida), curtailing re-incarceration for technical parole violators, and the burgeoning implementation of “good time” early-release credits. As a result, 15 states have closed 35 adult correctional facilities over the last two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, while additional closures are pending in 2013.

Although prison closures are widely celebrated by prisoners and criminal justice reform activists alike, the implementation of such plans is rarely straightforward and often encounters opposition from local communities, prison guard unions and lawmakers in the districts where facilities are slated to close. If achieved, prison closures are usually piecemeal and result in the transfer of prisoners to other facilities, not additional releases. Similarly, prison employees displaced by closures are often absorbed by other facilities, not fired. The predictable tumult resulting from actual and proposed prison closures reflects the competing and contradictory interests held by various stakeholders involved in the process.

Despite signaling a hopeful interruption in the business-as-usual crime and punishment mania that has characterized U.S. penal policy for the past half-century, it’s possible to argue that the increasing number of prison closures represents just as much an experiment in budget-cutting in the short term as it does in durable criminal justice reform over the long term.

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